Artemisia Gentileschi excelled as a painter in Baroque Europe, representing women of history and myth with virtuosic skill and sensitivity, but her path wasn’t without difficulty.
Artemisia Gentileschi, perhaps the most highly regarded woman artist of the Baroque period, began her career with what seems like an inherent edge. She was the only daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a Mannerist painter based in Rome who became a follower of Caravaggio. Her father received important commissions and eventually became court painter to Marie de Medici in Paris and later to Charles I of England.
Born in Rome in 1593, Gentileschi began training with her father in 1608–09. Her mother died during her childhood, and the young Artemisia worked alongside her father, his assistants, and her brothers—who were neither as committed nor as talented as their sister. When she was 10, her father was imprisoned for libel alongside Caravaggio in connection with the distribution of unbecoming verses about fellow painter Giovanni Baglione around Rome’s art community. And thus, this was the desert island on which Artemisia was stranded—a place where her talents found more security than her wellbeing.
Susannah and the Elders, her earliest dated painting, is from 1610. It depicts an episode from the biblical Book of Daniel in which a young married Jewish woman who is spied upon by two lecherous elders while bathing in her own garden. They insist that if she doesn’t have sex with them, they will publicly claim that they saw her meeting with another man. After her refusal to comply with the elders’ demands, Susannah is nearly put to death for promiscuity before Daniel intervenes, insisting that the elders be questioned. In the end, during cross-examination the elders claim to have been standing under two different types of trees, revealing an important discrepancy in their story. They are put to death while Susannah is spared.
Gentileschi portrays Susannah at the moment of being spied upon and taunted by the two elders, showing the trauma the young woman experiences. So virtuosic was the portrayal that many believed it to be the work of her father, and it was, despite her signature, falsely attributed for a considerable amount of time. Regardless, this narrative, which Gentileschi would paint several times over the course of decades, would prove to be a prescient one in her life.
The following year, when she was around 17, Gentileschi was raped by a painter and sometime collaborator of her father, Agostino Tassi. This was her first sexual experience. Tassi told Orazio that he would marry Artemisia, but when he reneged on this promise, Orazio petitioned the Pope in 1612, and the case went to trial.
Through a detailed transcript of the infamous proceedings, we learn what Gentileschi went through to prove the legitimacy of her accusations. She was tortured during testimony with cords that were wrapped and tightened around her fingers. She was examined by midwives in front of a judge to establish the loss of her virginity. Several witnesses—assistants who worked with Orazio—were brought to establish Artemisia’s reputation. One asserted that her father forced her to pose nude and liked people to watch her, another claimed that she asked him to bring letters to a variety of men for her. Tassi testified that her father’s notary Giovanni Battista Stiattesi was sexually involved with Gentileschi instead, casting further shadow on her reputation.
In the end, Tassi, who had also been accused of raping and plotting to kill his first wife and engaging in adultery with his wife’s sister, was exiled from Rome for five years. The sentence, however, was never enforced. Artemisia was the one who ended up leaving the city.
The notion that women are not believed has created a watershed in culture for the last several years. The tidal wave of the #MeToo movement did not arise through new stories, but rather through an unprecedented moment when old stories were finally believed. Since the widespread sexual harassment allegations levied against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, a false perception has grown that it is now easy for women to come forward with such allegations and to stand trial defending themselves. In truth, as can be seen in the Senate hearings of Christine Blasey Ford or Weinstein’s trial in New York (as of this writing, he has been sentenced to 23 years in jail for rape), it is still a harrowing experience for women to prove what they’ve experienced. Though things have certainly changed since Gentileschi’s case 400 years ago, one wonders why they haven’t changed more.
Gentileschi, like Susannah, was not easily believed. Disbelief began for her when she signed her name on her first painting and persisted during the trial of her rape in 1612. Though, like any painter of the era, she was subjected to painting the themes that pleased her patrons, she would portray Judith, Lucretia, Cleopatra, Susannah, and Mary Magdalene—the most infamous and complicated women of history and myth. Gentileschi became well known and well paid for her craft. She enjoyed a 40-some-year career that brought admiration and commissions from across Europe—with not a few from rulers and their courts. But while being a painter might have come relatively easy, being a woman wasn’t always a walk in the park.
The National Gallery of London was set to open “Artemisia” in early April. The museum, like nearly all institutions, closed to the public in March due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, and the exhibition was put on hold. But with all its wheels already set in motion, we will henceforth discuss the show like the living, breathing testimony to Gentileschi’s career that it is.
“Artemisia” is the first monographic exhibition of the artist’s work in the U.K. Bringing together around 30 paintings from public and private collections—many in the London area for the first time—the loosely chronological exhibition serves as a window into Gentileschi’s stunning oeuvre. The show also includes recently found personal letters of hers, which were specially conserved for the exhibition.
The National Gallery’s recent acquisition of Self Portrait As Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615–17), the first painting by the artist in a U.K. public collection, was the catalyst for the show. Gentileschi painted the work in Florence, the city she rushed to after her trial. In the wake of the proceedings she was swiftly married off to Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, a minor Florentine painter. Though the marriage didn’t prove successful, Florence agreed with Gentileschi. There, she became the first woman accepted to the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, painted pictures for the Medici family, and established relationships with Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti (Michelangelo’s grand-nephew). She had a daughter with Stiattesi, and also a hot love affair with the wealthy nobleman Francesco Maria Maringhi that her husband apparently knew about (he corresponded with Maringhi on the reverse of the love letters Gentileschi sent him).
Self Portrait As Saint Catherine of Alexandria was one of many pictures Gentileschi painted in Florence that featured her own image. Whether an act of self promotion or resourcefulness, the fleet of works from the 1610s portraying Gentileschi herself add to the painter’s persona. A section of the National Gallery’s exhibition titled “Becoming Artemisia in Florence,” which showcases several of them, ironically reveals an artist who seems entirely present and self-assured. It features her aforementioned self portrait as Saint Catherine already in London, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615–17) from the Uffizi, Self Portrait as a Female Martyr (1613–14) from a private collection, and Self Portrait as a Lute Player (1615–17), from the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Two representations of Judith Beheading Holofernes are from the same period and are in the same section of the exhibition: an earlier depiction (1612–13), from Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte in Naples, and a version made shortly after (1613–14), from the Uffizi. The biblical episode tells of the beautiful widow Judith seducing and beheading the brutish Assyrian general Holofernes in order to save her city, Bethulia. This is Gentileschi’s most iconic subject. She depicts a violent Judith, in the moment of killing Holofernes. With the general lying on a white sheet, Judith’s handmaiden holds his body down as the widow grips his hair and severs his neck. Blood drips down on the sheet, decorating it in red stripes. In the Uffizi painting, which is the more gruesome of the two, blood spurts from Holofernes’s neck like water from a fountain.
Gentileschi’s representations of the subject have been read as a sort of visual revenge. After what she had been through, it certainly seems plausible that she would relish the painting of such a scene. But her portrayals are also in line with the evolution of Judith in Baroque painting. During that period, imagery of the widow became more violent, replacing the saint-like depictions that abounded in the Renaissance and the more sexualized versions that became pervasive in the late Renaissance. Gentileschi’s paintings are also similar to that of Caravaggio, who was a massive influence on her; he depicted Judith in the act of killing.
In 1620, Gentileschi returned to Rome with her daughter. Now at a calmer point of her career, she did not receive major commissions for altarpieces or the like but continued to paint portraits and biblical heroines. Her stay in her home city did not last 10 years, and she finished the 1620s with a brief stint in Venice.
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, rediscovered less than a decade ago, was likely painted during this period. Though owing much stylistically to Caravaggio and to her father, the work’s composition is all her own. In the picture, a woman leans back, her hair loosely cascading over her exposed shoulders. Her eyes are closed, and a look of serenity and relief washes over her face. Here again, Gentileschi is her own model, leading some to interpret the ease and abandon in the figure to be the artist’s own.
During this period, several artists created portraits of Gentileschi. French artist Pierre Dumonstier II drew The Right Hand of Artemisia Gentileschi Holding a Brush (black and red chalk on paper), a unique sort of artist’s portrait, in 1625. Between 1623 and 1626, Gentileschi’s friend, the French painter Simon Vouet, painted her with a palette in her hand, providing another view of the artist practicing her trade. Around 1625, an unknown artist made a bronze portrait medal of Gentileschi that comes to the London exhibition from the Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection of New York. French artist Jerôme David created an engraving that is now in the collection of The British Museum: Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi (after a self portrait by Artemisia) (1627). These works all appear in a section of the exhibition titled “The Hand of the Famed Artemisia.”
Gentileschi settled in Naples in 1630. There, aside from a brief trip to London, she remained for 25 years, operating a successful studio with her daughter, who was also a painter. She wrote to a patron that Naples was too dangerous and inquired about obtaining a license for a gun, but nevertheless she stuck it out. She received several major commissions there. Included in the National Gallery’s exhibition are two of them, her first altarpieces: Annunciation (1630, Museum e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples) and Saint Januarius in the Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli (about 1635–37, Cathedral Basilica San Procolo, Diocese of Pozzuoli, Naples).
Gentileschi visited London between 1638 and 1640, by invitation of Charles I (and likely to help her aged father with the ceiling of the Queen’s House in Greenwich). During her trip, she painted Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), a work that was in the collection of Charles I and is now in the Royal Collection Trust of Her Majesty the Queen. In the painting, Gentileschi portrays herself as the allegorical figure of painting according to Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, the standard emblematic handbook of the period, down to the gold mask pendant dangling near her chest. Gentileschi’s self-portrayal was at times simply to offset the cost or necessity of a model, but here she seizes a rare opportunity afforded to a woman painter. That is, the allegorical figures of the arts were all female, and thus, only a woman could embody painting itself. Though to some it may have seemed arrogant, Gentileschi really did embody painting–had not all of her trials and victories been related to it?
The 1610 Susannah and the Elders, on loan from Kunstsammlungen Graf von Schönborn, Pommersfelden, begins the exhibition, while the 1652 Susannah and the Elders, on loan from Polo Museale dell’Emilia Romagna, Collezioni della Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, closes it, chronologically speaking. A 1622 representation of the narrative, painted while the artist was back in Rome, comes to the show from The Burghley House Collection. The two earlier versions, interestingly, portray Susannah’s agony with a raw intensity, while the oldest version is somehow darker and more fatigued—like Susannah has heard it all before. By 1652, some four years before her death, Gentileschi certainly had.
By Sarah E. Fensom